“I think it was something about you being a megalomaniac and randomly murdering people who thought you were their friend,” I said, watching the knife carefully. The armor should be able to stop it, and even if it got through it shouldn’t be able to really hurt me, but…well, under the circumstances I thought that relying on that was probably not the best idea.
Jason sighed and sat down, returning the knife to its sheath. Now that I was watching more closely, I could see that he hadn’t produced it from nowhere. Just a wrist sheath and a bit of sleight of hand.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” he said, picking up his glass of water and sipping at it. “It’s not like I hunted him down for sport or something. But that was possibly the only chance I had to deal with him. I couldn’t afford to let it slip by me.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay,” I said. “If you want to be like that about it, how about a trade? I have questions, and you have answers. Somehow, I’m guessing there are things you’d like to know too. I think one to one is a fair exchange, don’t you?”
“And why would I take the risk of explaining myself to you?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Think of it like this,” I said. “We want to kill you, you want to kill us. And there’s not a lot that any of us can do, here, to get away. One way or another, one of us isn’t leaving this roof alone. So really, adding in the explanation isn’t changing anything. It’s just going double or nothing.”
Jason nodded. “You know,” he said thoughtfully, “you really aren’t much like I expected. You aren’t what the rumormongers would paint you as. Much more reasonable, less psychotic. You made that offer quite cogently.” He smiled, a thin, empty sort of smile. “You ask first. You are, after all, the guest here.”
“All right,” I said. “Why does the Light of Reason terrorist group have access to top-tier magical equipment and information?”
“They’re being used,” he said, quite shamelessly. “By quite a number of people, really. There are plenty of people who see potential there. It isn’t my doing, if that’s what you were wondering. But one person feeds them a secret, and another tosses a bribe their way, and before you know it the pawn has more power than anyone intended.”
I nodded. He sounded sincere. Which meant nothing at all, but I thought he might actually be telling the truth this time. It fit. It fit together so neatly. I thought I was finally starting to get an idea of what was going on, of what the real shape of things was, and what Jason said fit with that shape.
“My turn,” he said. “Why did you hunt me down here?”
“Because you killed me,” I said. “Or as good as, anyway.”
I shrugged. “Oh, there are other reasons. I could go into why you did that, and whose plans are being served, but in the proximate sense? Yeah, the immediate reason is just that you killed me.”
“I see,” he said, with the mildly troubled frown of someone who doesn’t see and never will.
“You don’t really get people, do you?” I commented. “Not as anything other than tools to be used.”
“That’s all we are,” Jason said calmly. “Everyone uses, and is used. I’m simply not in denial about it.”
“I thought it was something like that,” I said. “That would be why you don’t understand, I think. You’re not equipped to process that kind of reaction.”
He nodded. “Very possibly. I believe that it’s you next.”
I took a deep breath and let it out. “Why does Loki care about me?”
“Even gods are finite,” he said matter-of-factly. “Incredibly powerful, certainly. Their capabilities are…vast. But finite. They have limits, boundaries. They are neither omnipotent nor omniscient. As such, they require agents. They require tools. And they require weapons.”
“And I’m a weapon.” It wasn’t a question.
Jason answered it anyway. “Yes,” he said. “You are. Why did the Fenris Wolf come to save you?”
“Because he likes me,” I said, shrugging. “I mean, again, there’s a lot more at work behind the scenes. There are other factors, other plans to take into account. But as far as I can tell, the direct reason behind him choosing to do that is just that he likes me, he wanted to help me, and that was the only way he had available to do so. Who taught Katie Schmidt how to summon and bind something from the void?”
Jason paused before answering, and frowned. “I am not entirely sure,” he said. “There are multiple possibilities. But if I had to guess? Hunter.”
“Hunter,” I repeated. “You mean…the Hunter? The member of the original Conclave? The one whose existence they’ve tried to erase? That Hunter?”
“Of course,” I sighed. Hunter. The man with a gift for space magic, and a tie to the notion of place. The one who’d explored the outer reaches of the Otherside, and found something there so bad that the Conclave had struck all mention of his existence from the records.
It occurred to me that the only mage I’d met who had a gift for manipulating space, in particular, was Reese. It occurred to me that Jason had just killed him. Somehow I didn’t think that was a coincidence, or half as casual as Jason had presented it as being.
More pieces were fitting into place. The picture was almost finished, now. I’d misunderstood things so badly, but now the answers were so clear.
I’d have been happier if the answers weren’t so unpleasant. But that was how it went.
“I don’t think I have any other questions,” Jason said after a moment, echoing my thoughts. “Not for you.”
I sighed, the long, slow sigh of wind through bare branches. “No,” I said. “I don’t suppose I have any questions for you either.”
“I suppose this is it, then,” he said. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry that things had to be like this. That your life had to be like this. But this is where we are.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It is.”
He didn’t so much as twitch, but I felt a weight press on me, impossibly heavy. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even think, couldn’t marshal my power to fight the pressure. I managed to call Tyrfing, reached to undo the strap holding the old cursed sword in its scabbard, but it was hard. Traveling across the plain and up the tower hadn’t been half as hard as moving my fingers those few inches. I started to draw the sword, and the weight redoubled itself, crushing me. My hands fell to my side again.
I couldn’t even get upset about it. Oh, I was angry, but it felt…distant. The weight was dragging even that down, an oppressive fog that clouded everything.
It looked like Aiko was feeling similarly. She twitched a little, scents of fox and spice and shadow, cords of darkness winding through her fingers. But she didn’t, couldn’t really do anything. I could feel her fury, a quietly berserk anger that was scary even to me. But her posture was as blank and listless as mine.
Jason stood, silently. He set his glass of water on the table, and drew that knife again. And then he started walking in our direction.
And then I heard a voice. It felt…familiar, but odd. It was a voice that I’d only heard clearly a few times, though it was familiar in a way that almost nothing else could be, bone-deep. The wolf in Snowflake’s mind usually preferred to stay silent, in the background, something that you would only see if you knew how to look.
It’s been good, that voice said now. I’m sorry.
And then she was running forward, a blur in black and white and blue, moving almost too fast to follow. If the crushing weight holding me and Aiko down affected Snowflake at all, it didn’t show. She tensed, leaped at Jason, a perfect pounce that landed squarely in the middle of the man’s torso. He staggered, and metal teeth closed on his shoulder instead of his neck, but they still bit deep, and for a moment I thought it might work after all.
Then Jason brought that knife around. It swept through the armor like it wasn’t even there, and laid her throat open to the bone.
It felt like time stood still for a moment. I still couldn’t move, couldn’t shake off the burden weighing me down. But it felt like my senses had gone into overdrive to compensate. I could smell sweat and blood and metal. I saw the light glinting off the blade. Saw the first spurts of arterial blood, a moment’s delay and then a spray, staining her white fur a brilliant red. Saw her eyes, one cold and blue and knowing, the other gone, burnt out long ago to pay for my mistakes.
I heard the clamor of metal on stone as she fell.
And then everything was gone, replaced by a vision, painfully clear, too intense to be real. My vision went black, the utter darkness of a cave without a flame, a night without stars, the sort of darkness that laughed at the notion of light. Drawn on it in silver light, shapes as large as worlds, was an abstract, geometric design. It was harsh, almost brutal, all odd angles and broken lines, nothing lining up right.
I heard Grandmother Midnight’s voice, then. It was…not loud, precisely. But it was so huge, so pervasive, that it dominated my experience. To call it sound seemed woefully inadequate.
The Tower, she said, in that too-large voice. All things fall in time.
Then the vision faded. I was back on the spire with Jason, seemingly in the same instant I’d left. Snowflake hadn’t even finished falling yet.
But everything was different.
Beneath our feet, the tower groaned like a thing in pain, a noise so deep that I didn’t so much hear it as feel it in my chest. It shook, though the vast plains all around were perfectly still, with no hint of an earthquake. It started to crumble and fall, the motion made slow by the sheer, almost inconceivable scale of it.
And as it did, the weight that had been dragging me down vanished as though it had never been.
Aiko’s reaction was instant, and violent. Ropes of darkness caught at Jason and dragged him down. He tried to fend them off with the knife, and where it met the shadows it cut them, but he was only human; too slow, too clumsy to defend himself that way. Aiko approached him at a pace she could never have managed when she was just a kitsune, drawing her sword as she went.
The blade fell once. Just once.
My own response was just as fast, but had a different focus. I ran to Snowflake, fell to my knees by her side.
Any notion I might have had that the wound was less serious than it looked died in a moment. It was deep, and wide, passing cleanly through both carotid arteries and the windpipe. It was the sort of wound that killed rapidly and surely.
There were things that could survive something like that. I could, now. Aiko probably could as well, being a Faerie Queen.
At the end of the day, for all that she was strong and fast and clever, Snowflake was just a dog. Get past all of the other things, and she was as fragile as any other.
I could do a lot of things. I had the power to lay waste to an army, to crush my enemies and drive them before me, to kill very nearly anything.
But I couldn’t heal. My best friend was bleeding out right next to me, and I was as helpless to stop it as anyone else.
I took a different tack, reaching for her mind and catching it. I tried to bring her–them–into my mind and hold them there, the way I had with the wolf once before.
I couldn’t. They couldn’t make the transition, the jump from that body and mind to mine. It was too alien, too dissimilar to their natures.
I pulled harder, refusing to let them go. They weren’t fading, weren’t vanishing, but still weren’t making that transition.
It hurt. It hurt as badly as anything I’d ever done. My vision was going grey. I could hear shouting, but it sounded like I was underwater, the sound distant and distorted. I could feel their pain as well, their agony at being torn in this way.
Stop, a voice said. It wasn’t Snowflake’s voice, wasn’t familiar to me at all.
No, I replied, though I wasn’t sure who it was intended for, the voice or Snowflake or myself. I won’t lose you. I tightened my grip, pulled harder.
Stop, the voice said again. This is how monsters are made.
I don’t care.
All things end, the voice said. All things must make that final step. You cannot save them, not as they were. And if they must end, death is a kinder end than what you are doing.
I wanted to argue. Wanted to scream and cry. Wanted to protest.
Didn’t, because I could feel that it was true.
I let go. Snowflake slipped away.
She let out a final sigh, her head resting in my lap. I felt her mind brush against mine a final time, wordless in the end as she’d been in the beginning, just a sense of love and acceptance and forgiveness and quiet, melancholy regret.
Then she was gone.
I stood, holding her body in one hand. With the other I fumbled blindly, found Aiko’s hand in mine.
I stepped silently off the edge of the roof and lowered us to the ground with a web of air and darkness, as the tower fell behind us.